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On a (correctly spelled) mission: an interview with Jeff Deck

On a (correctly spelled) mission: an interview with Jeff Deck

As many PR practitioners are simply writers who figured out
a way to get paid for it, many are word and grammar geeks. We voraciously
devour posts about language and usage, and subscribe to Grammar blogs. Grammar posts on PR
blogs get tons of comments. I imagine we all, given the chance (and nerve),
would like to emulate my interview subject.  On Friday, I spoke with Jeff Deck, the
originator and principal behind the Typo Eradication Advancement League
(hereafter: TEAL), about typos, misspellings, and the like.

I first asked Deck if there was a single moment–a deciding
factor, straw that broke the camel’s back, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going
to take it anymore” instant–that made him decide that getting in a car and driving
across the country for three months correcting typos was needed. He responded that
he’s always noticed typos and errors, and that the trip had been in the back of
his mind for a while. At a 5-year college reunion, he reflected on his skill
set. Doctors save lives; what could he do? His goal became a national campaign
of public awareness.

Nearly all of us who work with words see typos and misspellings–some
very rudimentary mistakes–and have the urge to correct. Usually, though, we
just stew about the error and perhaps make mention of it later, in a “can-you-believe-the-state-of-spelling”
kind of way. One of the questions Deck and the rest of his team faced: are
these errors a lack of oversight, or a lack of education?  The definition of “typo” is that it is a
typographical error–a mistake made in haste, due to lack of oversight. This was
actually something that the team struggled with, as it seems in bad taste to
point out someone’s lack of education to them. Very early on in the trip, he blogged:

[…] I began to wonder if the rest
of the journey would follow this same pattern, if I’d continually end up this
ogre haunting the less privileged and recent immigrants for the sake of
furthering my pet cause. Such a fate seemed at odds with the beliefs that I was
sure I held. Could I not be a liberal and correct typos at the same time? Maybe
it could be reconciled… we were supposed to be uppity bastards, after all.

Tongue in cheek nature of the last sentence aside, he told
me that the TEAL team’s efforts were directed by a genuine desire to improve
spelling and grammar, and that they realized their education was a privilege
that not everyone is afforded. They were sensitive to this, and the solution
was to be “as nice as possible” when offering to make a correction.  There are some errors that come up repeatedly,
and these he feels demonstrate “genuine gaps in general education”; it is these
that were the target of the team.  “Apostrophe
abuse,” offered Deck, when I asked him for an example.

The tendency to shy away from making a correction probably
stems in equal parts from a fear of rejection and a desire not to rankle.  I asked what the split was between those who
readily allowed him to make corrections versus those who refused. He said the
division was “roughly a third [of the people] were defensive or hostile, another
third were positive and thankful for the help to improve the signage, and the
remaining third were apathetic.” The portion who were apathetic actually worked
to the team’s advantage, as they “just wanted them out of their hair sooner
rather than later,” and they were able to quickly accomplish their tasks.

I asked about the refusals, and which bothered him most. He
said in general, any of the ones where the signage was obviously wrong and the
individuals insisted they were right bothered him. Specifically, he made
mention of an educational toy
in Ohio, the employees of which did not allow him to correct signage
in the store. I told Jeff that it was exactly that recounting that led me to
ask the question–I had come across the post and referenced it in Media Bullseye,
as I found the irony troubling. Jeff is also bothered by those who make excuses
for the misspellings. In a stylized Old West town(e?), Jeff was told that a sign
promoting a “Stationary” store was spelled that way because “that’s how it was
spelled in the Old West.”

I asked Jeff how he felt about intentional misspellings–is this
creativity in marketing at work, or does this trend contribute to, exacerbate,
or validate, what should be considered a national problem? He said that while
certain misspellings “personally bug [him],” that there is no absolute good or
bad and that he understands the need for creative license, even if there are
perhaps better ways to be creative. “Nite,” he pointed out, has been
intentionally misspelled in that way for 40 or 50 years.

I noted that he’d recently visited an elementary school, and
I asked how receptive the kids were–in fact, I asked him if there was any hope.
After laughing a bit, he said there is hope, and that these kids were fortunate
to have “a sharp teacher who cares a lot” about grammar, and the kids were “jazzed
about the trip.” Deck feels this is the key to ensuring a better-spelled
future: make teaching it fun and more relevant, and give kids a fun context.

When I asked Deck about a follow-up tour, he stated that
current funds do not allow for it, but offered that the overall state of
spelling in grammar in the country is not bad, but there are a few trouble
spots. Perhaps if we all contribute to the effort–read Letters to a Young Typo-Hunter
for tips on how to do so successfully–maybe we can live in a happier, more
correctly-spelled, America.  

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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the Director of Marketing Communications for CARMA. She is also the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for more than 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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1 Comment

    Jon Osterholm

    Check out Wikipedia, doing a lookup of “sensational spelling”. This is apparently a marketing concept. I frankly prefer intentional misspelling. I think Wiki is being duped, but I weighed in on the suggestion of merging “sensational spelling” with “sensationalism”. Seriously: have a look, and please, weigh in. Just suggest that the whole definition of sensational spelling ought to be removed ENTIRELY.
    It is unneccessarry, I think. But watt due eye no?

Comments are closed.

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